New music from Sturgill Simpson, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil and more
This week we've got a country crooner with a Nirvana cover, a Brazilian power duo that've been playing for 50 years and Moroccon history in music.
We know that you don't have time to keep up with what's new in music, but don't worry, we've got you covered with Tuesday Reviewsday. Every week our music experts join us in studio with their favorite new tunes that you should be listening to. This week we've got music journalist
Artist: Sturgill Simpson
Album: "A Sailor’s Guide to Earth"
Songs: "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)," "In Bloom"
In Televisionland, characters having a kid can be a classic shark-jump — [cough]"Mad About You"[cough]. Even in music, parenthood can turn the sharpest, edgiest observers of life into mewling, sentimental simps. Not this Simp(son).
With his third album and first since his son was born, Sturgill Simpson — whose last album had him tabbed as the savior of "real" "outlaw" country before Chris Stapleton took the mantel — digs deep inside, including pokes into some rather dark places. And musically he digs deep into a bracing, energized and challenging mix of country, soul and rock, with the supercharged Dap-Tone horns on a good portion of it. Never mind him being "the new Waylon Jennings," which was plenty cool enough. Here he’s closer to My Morning Jacket, though really staking out his own, distinct, wonders-filled landscape.
All this is presented as a musical letter to his boy, in two "sides," meant to be listened to straight through in sequence. "Hello my son, welcome to Earth," he sings in the opening line of the opening song, "Welcome to Earth," a lush but not syrupy wash of countrypolitan strings and steel guitar serving as the curtain being raised this play-of-life before the song kicks into a rousing jumble of guitars and drums and horns with Simpson’s gritty voice heading out over the moon. Which is clearly how he felt with the birth of his son.
The attention-getter here two weeks ahead of the album’s mid-April release is a muted, melancholy, countrified version of Nirvana’s "In Bloom." In Simpson’s hands and placed dead center in the sequence of nine selections, Kurt Cobain’s sarcastic portrait of clueless testosterone-powered pseudo-fans and hangers-on becomes an almost affectionate projection of flailing youth, of the almost inevitability of finding oneself on the outside of something and desperately wanting in, the wanting just making him more awkward.
Seems a strange thing to put in front of a newborn: Hey kid, here’s you in 15 years! It’s also a little strange maybe that he starts the next song, "Brace For Impact (Live a Little)" with the line, "Someday you’ll wake up and this life will be over." But "In Bloom" sounds like a dad speaking from experience, and from having come out the other side of that in darn good shape. And "Brace" sounds like a dad suddenly made acutely aware of his own mortality and the preciousness of each moment — he seems to be addressing himself at least as much as the boy.
Along the way in this guide, Simpson gives his son common-sense advice (from "don’t get busted selling at seventeen" to "motor oil is motor oil," in the song "Keep It Between the Lines"), encourages him to travel the world and collect tales of adventure ("Sea Stories), turn to God when he faces his own darkness ("All Around You") and don’t give up on love, no matter how hard it gets ("Oh Sarah").
And rather than close it with one of those last two, as one might expect, he ends his "letter" on what might seem another odd note: "Call to Arms," a stomping, gospel-rock workout imploring his son to turn off the TV and experience the world through his own eyes. Well, what better way to make sure the boy has good advice for his own kid someday. No shark-jumping there.
Artists: Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil
Album: "Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música: Multishow Live"
Songs: "Back in Bahia," "A Luz de Tieta"
Imagine if Bob Dylan and, oh, Smokey Robinson had been best friends and frequent collaborators 50 years ago, and had kept up the partnership periodically through the years. And not only that, imagine they’d been jailed, and later exiled to England, due to their defiance of an oppressive government. Now imagine that they recently went on a duo acoustic tour and released a live album drawing from the best of their cumulative catalogs.
Well, for Brazilian music fans there’s an equivalent. And it’s not hypothetical. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, superstars and icons on the level outlined above, have been taking a valedictory lap of their intertwined careers with a duo tour (coming to L.A.’s Microsoft Theater on April 10) and a lovely live album, "Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música: Multishow Live." That title translates as "Two Friends, A Century of Music," and that’s what it is, 50 years times two, songs that are not just at the core of modern Brazilian music, but the nation’s psyche. Calling them national heroes — Gil has even served as Minister of Culture, only the second African-Brazilian to hold a cabinet position — is almost an understatement.
The 28-song set, recorded at a concert in Brazil last year, begins with them duetting on Gil’s "Back in Bahia," written in 1972 as he was returning home after three years in their London exile. While a video of a performance in that year has him with a rock band, a combination of celebration and anger, this version is a spritely song of triumphant contentment and joy. Songs reach from the beginning of their partnership and the subversive, somewhat psychedelic ‘60s Tropicália movement, including Caetano’s anthem of that name, up to a brand-new song, "As Camélias do Quilombo do Leblon." In this context, just the two nylon-string guitars, the music tends to lilt rather than rock, not that they are too old for the latter, as Veloso’s own shows of recent years have shown clearly. One of the most gripping songs is the sparest: "Não Tenho Medo da Morte" ("I Have No Fear of Death"), with just Gil’s solo voice alternating, accompanied only by light rhythm tapping on guitar.
But the tone underscores the love and affection of this teaming, for each other and a mutual feeling for and from their audience. That comes through in the cheers and regular sing-alongs, reaching a peak on the closing song, "A Luz de Tieta," with the crowd completely taking over the vocals — just as we’d sing along with Bob and Smokey to "Like a Rolling Stone" or "My Girl."
Album: "Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959"
Songs: "Taqtoqa Jabilaya," "Sounds of General Rejoicing"
The movie "Casablanca" and the novel "The Sheltering Sky" came just seven years apart (1942 and 1949, respectively), are both set in Morocco, both feature troubled ex-pats in love triangles trying to make their ways through various difficulties and both stand tall in their 20th century cultural/literary worlds. But they are as different from each other as Dooley Wilson playing "As Time Goes By" in Rick’s is from a group of Berber men singing and drumming on a sweltering summer night in an Atlas Mountains village.
The former is Hollywood fantasy, of course. The latter, recorded by "The Sheltering Sky" author Paul Bowles a decade after he wrote the book, is as real as those mountains, yet to our ears no less fantastical. The piece, "AhmeiLou," described in his notes as "a circular dance for males," opens the newly compiled "Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959." The collection presents an extensive selection of Bowles’ taped bounty from a trip lugging a Wollensak tape recorder around the country, traveling largely in a friend’s Volkswagen from the sea through those mountains and into the edge of the Sahara, a trip funded by the Library of Congress and the Rockefeller Foundation.
The recordings didn’t exactly make the chanting singers, braying rhaitas, scratchy fiddles, plunked gibris, burbling hand drums and rattling shakers of Berber and Gnaoua music or even the more "sophisticated" performances of Arabic-Andalusian orchestras familiar fare. But for those who cared to explore what was released they showed a wealth of musical and cultural riches that were not only largely unknown, but endangered by the encroachment of modernism, the latter under the watch of a government seemingly disdainful of the region’s rural heritage. As such they stand alongside the folk and blues recordings John and Alan Lomax made in the U.S. south and the earlier recordings Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly made in villages of Hungary, Romania and Turkey.
And this new package released by prime archival label Dust-to-Digital (four-and-a-half hours of music, from a total of more than 70 hours Bowles got on this and several subsequent trips over the next few years) is arguably more valuable today than it was at the time. A greatly expanded version of a Library of Congress release from 1072, it’s organized in two parts of two discs each, first "The Highlands — the Berbers" and then "The Lowlands — Influent Strains." The set reveals not just the sounds and cultures on site, but Bowles great curiosity and fine ear (he was a noted modernist composer before gaining renown as a writer and compadre of the Beat poets). So not only is this an audio document of historic value, but a wonderful, captivating listen as it all unfolds.
The first half, as implied, focuses on the ritual and occasional music of the mountain tribal villages, the Berbers being a distinct people, not Arabic, though often mistaken as such, and largely evolving in isolation. The second two discs explore the melting-pot aspects of Morocco, its position at the Mediterranean-Atlantic corner of Northwest Africa having brought in multiple presences from throughout that continent as well as colonial occupations of Spanish, French and Portuguese, not to mention distant echoes from the Medieval "Golden Age" in which the Moors ruled both their and across the Straits of Gibraltar in Spain, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in relative peace, manifest in flowerings of art, literature, music, philosophy and science. So here we have sounds from the markets and streets of the great crossroads cities — Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Essaouira, though perhaps pointedly, not a peep from Casablanca. It’s everything from trance music of the Gnaoua (descendants of Sudanese slaves) to Andalusian orchestras to Sephardic Jewish songs.
Picking just a couple of tracks to serve as representative pieces of this huge tapestry is impossible. But "Taqtoqa Jabilaya," sung and played by a Berber ensemble led by Maalem Mohammed Rhiata in Fez, is a good start. In his original notes, Bowles says that he used to go see this group each Friday in the late ‘40s when he would have been formulating and writing "A Sheltering Sky." These men were of an Arabic-speaking group of Berbers known as Djebala, and the characteristic music is a slightly citified version of traditional styles, generally thought of even at the time as rural and obsolete, and in great peril of being lost forever.
And for a second choice? Well, how can you go wrong with something not on the original release and labeled simply as "Sounds of General Rejoicing." Which also describes the feelings of many world music fans with this package’s release.